The Shrinking American Middle Class: The Social and Cultural Implications of Growing Inequality

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On Tuesday 22nd May , the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights released the final report on his country visit to the UK. This UN report provides an appalling indictment on the effects of a decade of, at best, a failed debt recovery project, or, at worst, a strategy to cement the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

But there are still more dimensions to the legacy of austerity that are equally as troubling as its immediate impact. One of these is the extent to which austerity has decapacitated the mobilising forces that are essential to welfare-state-building and, in particular, the middle class. Although a sociologically nebulous category, the middle class has historically been a significant ally in the development of welfare states in the global North, Latin America and Asia.

Social class

The middle class tends to capture disproportionate benefits from the welfare state and contributory benefits in particular , but this is why its politics matter: it has power in voicing and securing demands for more and better public services, defending existing provisions and protecting universalism. Middle class buy-in is central to the integrative function of state welfare, and middle-class flight underwrites both residualisation and the general decline in scope and generosity of social policies.

On income measures, the global middle class , currently estimated at Progress is expected to come especially in and from China, India and the wider Asian world region because this is where most of the emerging middle class is to be found. The middle class is also expected to accelerate its own expansion — generally, the higher the median income, the greater the population share of the middle class, except in the US disproportionately small and central European countries disproportionately large , adding a further dimension to its desirability.

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In the fifth report in its series on inequality, the OECD expresses concern about the decline of the middle class and weakening of its economic power, observing that between — the share of income ratio of the middle to upper income class declined from 3. This squeeze has tightened since the financial crisis, and over the decade of austerity since , while the top 10 per cent have gained, average OECD median incomes have hardly changed. The problem is not just that the global Northern middle class are now slightly less privileged in relation to the super-rich, however.

In the post crisis global North, it is this kind of precarity that austerity has similarly visited on the middle class, which the OECD worries is showing signs of fracture.

Our Current Socioeconomic Landscape and What the Future Holds

A weakening of economic power is always accompanied by a weakening of political voice, and in this case, a voice that has demanded well-funded, comprehensive welfare provision. The middle class is shrinking because the costs of middle-classness have risen and the pathways to achieving it are blocked. It generally requires two high-skilled earners in a household but this advantage is challenged by debt-laden higher education; the unaffordability of owner-occupation; stagnant wages; deskilling and the contraction of middle-ranked jobs with security, prospects and pensions; precarious self-employment; rising care costs; household indebtedness and the impossibility of accumulating wealth through saving.

The toughening of barriers to social mobility also highlight the intergenerational dimension since the current better-off middle class tend not to be of working age or to have children. But in the midst of austerity, it is not simply the case that becoming and staying middle class is more difficult.

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Those who are, are seeking to maintain their status by opting out of public welfare to pursue private options: the household spending share on private health, for example, has increased in 14 out of 18 OECD countries with data. Spain has seen a 10 per cent increase in private health insurance enrolments since Private provider expansion and transnational markets in health and education have also debilitated the pressure for welfare state building outside the OECD, as those with greater means opt to pay for health and education services at home and abroad rather than agitate for better public provision.

Austerity has depleted middle-class jobs and unionisation in the public sector, but the declining association of the middle class with its services leaves it evermore defenceless. Differences in early education and school quality are the most important components contributing to persistent inequality across generations.

Investments in education, beginning in early childhood with programs like Head Start and Universal Pre-K, can increase economic mobility, contribute to increased productivity and decrease inequality. It is a great irony that tax rates for those at the top have been declining even as their share of income and wealth has increased dramatically.

The data show we have created bad tax policy by giving capital gains -- profits from the sale of property or investments -- special privileges in our country's tax code; privileges that give investment income more value than actual work.

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Capital gains tax rates must be adjusted so that they are in line with income tax rates. Savings incentives structured as refundable tax credits, which treat every dollar saved equally, can provide equal benefits for lower-income families. Higher levels of racial residential segregation within a metropolitan region are strongly correlated with significantly reduced levels of intergenerational upward mobility for all residents of that area.

Segregation by income, particularly the isolation of low-income households, also correlates with significantly reduced levels of upward mobility. Eliminating residential segregation by income and race can boost economic mobility for all. But getting policymakers to prioritize these policies will depend on the actions of advocates, voters and other supporters with a vision for a fair and inclusive society so strong that they overwhelm powerful forces that seek to maintain the status quo. All of these policies could be enacted at the local, state and federal levels if there is political will.

America's Slowly Disappearing Middle Class

While there is still some disagreements of the best way to reduce inequality, there is a growing consensus that inequality should be reduce. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors.

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